Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Livin' the Dream (Reunion Reflections #1)

Ritchie* owns and runs an Irish pub in one of North Carolina’s bigger cities. It’s an adorable two-story bar downtown. The top floor has a long bar, three or four TVs, and a nice-sized outside deck area with a killer view of the surrounding blocks. The bottom floor, rustic and not-too-roomy, has seven or eight booths, but the bar is right there in the middle of everything. The bottom floor is, as she says, “the no damn TVs allowed section.” Same goes for the bottom floor patio, where you apparently have to talk to people if you’re going to enjoy it. Or check your phone a lot.

This is not "Ritchie." Ritchie is a girl. This is not
me, either. It's just a picture I stoled off the
Internets of an Irish pub that looks a lot like hers.
The upstairs gets packed on Saturdays in the fall and for other big NC sporting events during the year, but the downstairs is the soul of the pub, where secrets are told, lifelines are altered, and alcoholics can stare into the void for hours without the distraction of flashing LED lights, only some variety of classic or not-so-classic rock pumping in at medium volume over the speakers.

I met Ritchie in the fall of my freshman year. She was in my intro poetry-writing class at UNC. She has one of those personalities that have a Jupiter-like gravitational pull. She’s exotic and oozes a sexy brand of confidence. It seems doubtless that, when she befriended/mesmerized me, she merely wanted to adopt a new puppy. Clueless boys are much less expensive than puppies.

Her best friend since elementary school, a behemoth of a man who went on to play for almost 15 years in the NFL, has to lie to his wife when he eats lunch at Ritchie’s bar, because his wife doesn’t trust her. (“If I’d really wanted to sleep with my best friend, don’t you think I coulda done so by now?” Ritchie asked, rhetorically. I nodded.)

Now she’s livin’ the dream. She’s running a thriving bar that will live as long as she wants it to. the bar wasn't her dream, at least not originally.

Mere days after her graduation, she took a suitcase and flew to California in search of something Hollywoody. Acting, screenwriting, whatever. Two years later, having pieced together decent-paying jobs (“basically because no one out there knew how to use a f*#king computer”), she ended up in a modest assistant assistant producer role with “Touched By An Angel.”

Her Hollywood war stories, all told from a lower rung on the totem, are non-stop hilarity and a healthy reminder that whatever we think about stars and their personalities is, at best, a 50-50 crap shoot.

While she was crawling up the entertainment production ladder, Ritchie's brothers were set to start a restaurant, but one of them suffered an aneurism. She came back to be there with her family and help get his restaurant off the ground... but she made it a pub. When it became clear he would survive, she promised to stay a year while he recovered. She picked out every detail. All the decor, the name, the menu, the staff. And then she made it very clear she wasn’t about to just hand over her baby to anyone else.

It is exactly the kind of bar that survives several decades. It’s not chasing a fad, and it’s not seeking the Next New Gimmick that will pull in a young crowd. It just provides a healthy selection of beer, a choice of well-lit and poorly-lit seating options, and some absolutely delicious pub food.

“I decided early on that, if I’m gonna have to eat two or three meals a day here, then the food will have to be good. I’m not gonna subsist on s*#t,” she said.

Ritchie has honed her once-meager potty mouth. Apparently, raising four children while running a bar risks passing along that gene. Two summers ago, her youngest girl walked into the bar and said, “Whassup mah bishes?” because she’d heard one of the bartenders say it a lot. She was five at the time, so now she’s a mythical goddess in pub land.

“I was so proud of the fact that my other three kids were good about it, didn’t cuss like me. And now my youngest one’s making up for all of ‘em.”

Running a bar is way cooler as a fantasy. She only allows herself to drink one night every year at her bar: St. Patty’s Day. The other 364 days are straight sober. “I learned early on that if you allow yourself to drink at your own bar, then it’s a decision you have to make every single day. And you have too many decisions to make every day to let that one take up your time.”

She’s as much of a therapist as a manager, with a staff full of the kinds of back stories that could form a whole new Lifetime-esque cable channel.

In the early years, as her husband worked as an officer, her kids would play up in the office area and sleep in dog beds she bought for them. She would either crash on a couch (that's still up there, and that had a server sleeping on it when she toured me) for the night or carry them down, one at a time, to her car well after midnight to tuck them in at home.

What I liked about her, from those early days until I saw her again for the first time in over 20 years, was how damned determined she was to squeeze out some happiness, for herself, for others, and especially for those who seemed to need some, sometimes desperately so. 

Few people I know are forces of nature quite like her, people who seem to bend surroundings to her will by stubbornly -- maybe even angrily -- refusing to stop smiling. Cheerful and determined, with some strange invisible chip on her shoulder. Sounds like the perfect woman to run a kickass Irish pub.

* -- (That’s not really her name.)

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